Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Devil and Daniel Webster” was one of three stories that Stephen Vincent Benét wrote in the late 1930’s on the subject of the great orator, and it was a story that brought him, on its publication in The Saturday Evening Post, almost instant national acclaim. The story tapped America’s love for folklore and legend, and, at a dark moment in the Depression when Americans were looking desperately for such handholds, it re-created the story of a genuine American hero. In the process of elevating Webster to a national honor, Benét also wrote a hymn celebrating America’s past greatness and future possibility.

Like the legends of earlier American folk heroes (Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and so on), Benét’s portrait of Webster is based on actual accomplishments but embellished in a number of ways. Webster takes on Jabez Stone’s case, even though he has “seventy-five other things to do and the Missouri Compromise to straighten out.” All of his feats in the story are prodigious, in fact, but none so great as his eloquence. He is able in his speech to convince twelve of the most desperate villains ever assembled out of American history to free Stone from the devil’s hold.

The story is praise not only for Daniel Webster, however, but also for his country, for the two are inextricably intertwined. Webster is, as Jabez Stone says of him, “the Union’s stay and New Hampshire’s pride!” Webster himself confesses, “I’d go to the Pit itself to...

(The entire section is 612 words.)